Urban Exploration Photography (Urbex) – An Ultimate Guide

Abandoned Mental Health Center Rockford Illinois
Abandoned Mental Health Center Rockford, Illinois

What is Urbex Photography?

Urbex is a form of architecture photography.

This type of photography involves entering abandoned buildings such as historic factories, decaying residences or ruins. The goal is to document the building’s decay. Capturing these photos can help preserve the buildings history if anything ever happens to it.

Urban Exploration has a couple rules.

Milwaukee abandoned factory
Abandoned Factory Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Rule #1 – Don’t break anything.

Don’t break anything refers to the building itself, as well as anything inside. As an abandoned photographer your goal is to capture creepy, cool, and unique photos.

Rule #2 – Don’t take anything.

Taking from an abandoned property may seem harmless, however, that is still considered theft. Most properties are still owned by someone and all the stuff inside still legally belongs to the owners.

Rule #3 – Don’t give out locations.

Giving out locations can lead to multiple different issues. Scrappers will want to pull out all the metal and wiring to make some quick cash. Vandals will want to destroy anything they can for “fun”. Then, the worst one, Arsonists, These people enjoy starting fires and burning down abandoned buildings are an easy target. Countless fires near me have been started for “fun” resulting in abandoned buildings being gone forever. In the Urbex community its common for explorers to trade locations with other trusted explorers/photographers

Rule #4 – Get permission if possible.

This one may seem a bit odd, however, abandoned buildings usually have an owner still. These owners end up neglecting the property for many different reasons. That being said, if you can find the property owners info you can ask for permission to explore and take photos. I have asked many owners for permission and have gotten some really cool photos without trespassing.

How to get in contact with the property owner

  • Search google for the property and find the owners info.
  • Ask anyone who may be on site for the owner
  • Ask neighbors for the owners contact
  • Look for a phone number listed on the building or any signs for the building
  • Use a property tax record app like Landgrid for iPhone.

What to say to the property owner

I recommend being honest with the owner.

Tell them that you are interested in writing a blog, maybe you’re interested in documenting the history of the building, or even that you are a photographer interested in capturing a few cool pics. If you’re open and honest with the owner they will be much more willing to work with you.

Remember the worst they can say is NO and ask you to leave.

Legal Issues

Garden hotel abandoned Illinois
Abandoned Hotel South Beloit, Illinois

Let’s talk about the legal boring stuff first. Urban exploration photography is a genre that can be illegal in some countries. Entering the property without permission is called trespassing. We do not encourage trespassing and encourage everyone to get permission first.

A few buildings have security guards, there job is to keep people from entering the building. You can always try to ask permission to access the building from the security guard on duty. They usually wont be able to grant you access, but they could point you in the right direction.

Some abandoned buildings will host ghost tours, these abandoned buildings will allow you to pay a fee to stay in the building.

Then abandoned sites, it can be difficult to hunt down and find the owner. In some cases, there are photographers who will enter anyway, usually they will enter through some kind of opening in a window or door.

If you decide to do this, just be aware that you may be arrested by the local law enforcement. If you are caught by police, never run away, always be calm and explain to the police why you were their and what you were doing. Police have no idea if you have a weapon, broke into the place, or have intentions to steal/vandalize.

Urban Exploration equipment

Abandoned Church School Rockford, Illinois
Abandoned Church School Rockford, Illinois

Equipment I recommend bringing

I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.

Med Kit

A med kit will help you or a partner if anything minor happens. You could be cut, fall, have something fall on you, or maybe stung by angry bees. Abandoned buildings can be in really rough shape and cause you to get hurt easily.

Door Stops

When exploring buildings, there are lots of doors that can easily lock behind you. To avoid getting locked into a room place a door stop. Then pick it up when you leave.

Gloves

Gloves are a great thing to have if you need to climb a fence, through a window, to protect your hands from rusty metal, and even mold.

Portible Photography Lights

When exploring abandoned buildings, oftentimes, they have no power and are boarded up. This makes the rooms and basements vary dark. Cameras tend to lose a lot of detail and have a hard time focusing in the dark. A couple of these lights will light up a whole room! I take them with me everywhere I go.

Chalk

Some abandoned buildings have many hallways, rooms, and even tunnels that look the same. To help yourself avoid getting lost mark the direction you’ve been with some white chalk.

Pepper Spray

You never know what you may encounter in an abandoned building, a rabid animal, a homeless guy, or someone who just wants to harm you. It’s a good idea to take something with you to protect yourself. I do not recommend taking a weapon, since it may not be seen as a tool for self defense if you do encounter the police.

respirator

Wearing a respirator is very important. Old buildings have lots of mold and asbestos in them. Breathing in those can make you sick or even cause death.

Solar Charger pack

I can’t tell you the countless times my phone has died when exploring and taking photos. Solar charging packs can charge up in the car and you can bring them in with you to give you hours of extra phone life.

Flashlight

It gets dark in buildings you may need an emergency flashlight. This is the one I use.

Safety tips

g 0 abandoned northridge mall photography wisconsin milwaukee 47
Abandoned Northridge Mall Milwaukee, Wisconsin

prep accordingly

It’s better to over prep then under prep and need something. Make sure you bring a camera, lights, batteries, fully charged phone, flash light, lots of water, food to snack on, and a mask for the essentials.

Walk with a light foot

Floors cave in on explorers all the time. Walk along the floor supports, never walk right next to other people in your group, make sure you have stuff to grab onto if possible. Never walk onto a floor that you do not trust! Keep your steps light so you don’t make a lot of noise and are less likely to cave in the floor. Be very careful on stairs too. Try to find a set of stairs made out of concreate instead of wood.

Don’t run if you see a police officer or person

Homeless people usually won’t hurt you. They will most likely ask for a smoke or some money. Make sure you let them know you’re only there to take photos and do not mean to bother them. If you encounter police. Let them know you are taking photos and have permission or didn’t realize it was private property. If they ask you to leave do so immediately. If the owner is there they may be upset with you being on there property, stay calm introduce yourself and what you’re doing. If they yell at you to leave, apologize and leave immediately.

Photographers rights

A lot of security, owners and officers may ask you to delete photos that you took on the property. You do not have to delete any images at there request. I recommend if you have an SD card to switch the card into locked mode so nothing can be deleted. You can do this by switching the little tab on the side of the SD card. If you have an iPhone, you can delete them and resave them from your recently deleted album at a later point.

Parking in front of the building

If you have permission to explore the building I recommend parking right out front and leave a business card on your front window so police can contact you if they need too.

Buddy System

Always go with at least one other explorer for safety reasons. You will be less likely to be robbed, attacked, harassed, and even safer in the event one of you gets hurt. If your phone dies having a second person means you’ll still have a phone for emergencies or as a flashlight.

Intuition

You know that gut feeling that tells you something bad is about to happen. Listen to that. If your gut tells you something is off, leave or don’t enter. Getting photos are not worth losing your life over.

How to Find Abandoned Places

Abandoned Airplanes in Wisconsin
Abandoned Airplanes in Wisconsin

ShotHotspot – Find abandoned places by location (most are demolished or not in the exact location where pinned) on this site.

The old school way – Drive around, find places with lots of broken windows, boarded up, no signs of use, falling in on itself, and condemned signs.

Google Maps – Satellite Mode, look for buildings that have clear signs of major decay from the roof tops. Add a label to save your abandoned locations on the maps.

43°1057 4 N 88°0035 4 W Google Maps Google Chrome 7 6 2021 6 13 07 PM

Google Maps – Street View, When in street view you will see boarded up windows, broken windows, and buildings falling apart.

2301 Lemp Ave Google Maps Google Chrome 7 6 2021 6 18 35 PM

Explore with other photographers – If you are known as a photographer and have been in many abandoned buildings people will trade you locations or even get you permission to explore places they’ve been.

Google Search – “Abandoned + {your city/state}” then go through all the articles to find abandoned places.

Tiktok – Search “abandonedWisconsin” or “abandonedmilwaukee” for example and watch videos under the hashtags and read comments until you find a place.

Instagram – Search “abandonedillinois” or “abandonedChicago” for example and look at photos under the hashtags and read comments until you find a place.

Abandoned Wisconsin – Facebook groups like this contain many explorers and places. (do not ask for a location on the group)

YouTube – search the city you want to explore and read through comments and watch videos. Here’s an example

Pinterest – people will save photos they’ve taken of abandoned places in the city on Pinterest

Reddit – You can find threads where people discuss abandoned places in certain cities and states. like the Milwaukee thread

Realtor – Get to know a realtor and they can let you know about abandoned properties on the MLS database. These can be both on and off market commercial and residential properties. They can pull up properties that are labeled for foreclosure, have a lot of unpaid taxes, or might have even been sitting on the market for sale for many years.

News – The news will often report on a demolition scheduled months or years before the building is taken down. These articles can be found on google.

Abandoned Testers Paint Factory Rockford, Illinois
Abandoned Testers Paint Factory Rockford, Illinois

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